Wei Ji: uprising in China and crisis as laboratory

The financial crisis and the resulting job and budget cuts means there is an urgent need for consolidated action by unions. We are also seeing web 2.0 tools making coordination between union activists easier than ever before. This is a perfect storm of circumstance, and we are likely to see trade union activists make increased use of new technologies. Social media such as Twitter have reached a deep enough penetration in society that even trade unionists are using them, and when their full potential is grasped, we may see a burst of innovative, creative and powerful activity by union activists in cyberspace. They will use these technologies either with, or without the support of their unions.

There are some early indications of interesting new cyberunion strategies from an unexpected quarter: China is often referred to as the ‘workshop of the world’, producing much of the goods consumed by the rest of the world, including most of the West’s premium brands. Paul Mason argues in his excellent book that Chinese workers will need to reinvent a model of trade unionism appropriate for their circumstances. As Seamus Milne writes, this seems to be happening: there is an unprecedented wave of industrial action sweeping China. Most relevant to our subject is the case of the Foxconn manufacturing hub in Shenzhen, China, which employs 400,000 workers. Foxconn produces much of the hardware we use: computers, touch screens and smart phones, including Apple’s iPhones and iPads. Foxconn has been rocked by crisis due to the high suicide rate of workers, leading to an outcry and a 30% wage increase. This helped spawn walk outs at Honda and other factories, and there are reports of a new generation of Chinese labour activists using the technology they create to organise industrially. Organising outside of the official (state controlled) unions, this new generation of activists is using technology to organise.

It seems appropriate that Chinese workers, making the tools that allow us to access cyberspace, should use them to organise resistance to the conditions they find themselves in.

As trade unionists in Britain face coordinated attacks on the already limited right to take industrial action, we are going to need to look beyond the official structures of our unions – tied up in red tape, bureaucracy and anti-union laws – and look at innovative ways of coordinating unofficial action. Technology can help us here.

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